Friday, March 9, 2012

PURE FUSION: multiculture versus monoculture
director’s cut, Springerin, December 2000

by Simon Reynolds

It's funny when you suddenly become aware of a tic within your own writing. It's a reflex I share with a fair few other popcult commentators: using the word "purist" as an insult. I go further and frequently use the coinage "impurist", which sounds like it ought to be pejorative, as praise. Behind the tic, there's a broader reflex: the impulse to celebrate artists who draw on a wide range of influences, based on the assumption that mixing up genres is intrinsically more progressive than narrow focus on one stylistic path.

Increasingly dissatisfied with this glib assumption, I almost want to perversely defend purism as an aesthetic strategy--if only because such a lot of ostentatiously border-crossing work is actually far less impressive than it thinks it is. Think of Bill Laswell, leftfield music's most assiduous networker, continually convening one-off supergroups that unite P-Funk keyboard players with free jazz hornsmen with African guitarists with hip hop turntablists with dub producers with... well, you get the picture. The idea is similar to Jon Hassell's notion of the Fourth World (Western hi-tech modernity meets atavistic ethnic spirituality, to each other's mutual enrichment) but Laswell's panglobal superjams almost invariably end up a horrible mish-mash. Then there's those other perpetrators of lameness in the name of hybridity: the "ethnotechno" school of world music sampling electronic outfits like TransGlobal Underground, Banco De Gaia, Loop Guru (who actually had a few moments, admittedly), Juno Reactor...

Trouble is, most of the music I like is hybrid, and its hybridity is high on the list of reasons why I rate it. This raises the question of why some fusions work and others remain composites of disparate sources without any vital spark. The language for judging success or failure in this realm is entirely metaphorical. Successful hybrids invite the imagery of alchemy or metallurgy (crucibles, amalgams, melding, smelting, and so forth), or the essentially similar language of cooking (bouillabaise, gumbo, melting pots, etc). Bad hybrids, like lumpy purees or unsuccessful cakes, are subject to the ultimate put-down: "the end result is somehow less than the sum of its parts".

Good musical hybridity, like good cooking, might be where you can still detect every element's distinctive flavor, but the flavors have interpenetrated each other---a perfect balance of heterogenity and mixture (as opposed to the homogenized taste of a perfectly smooth puree). Then again, music isn't really like cooking--there's no reason why you can't have artists who make a whole dish out of the sonic equivalent of flour, or salt. (And you do--virtuosos of monochromatic concentration like Plastikman and Pole). And yet there's hardly any positive terms in pop critical discourse for fanatical focus or fixated perseverance. Fruitless displays of undistinguished versatility (a/k/a being a jack of all trades and master of none) always run better with reviewers, few of whom seem to be equipped for listening closely to the subtle modulations of what Amiri Baraka called a "changing same" (the groove that just keeps on keepin' on, yet absorbs you with its endlessly shifting inflections and accents). Look at dance magazines, and you will see reviews that approvingly list an artist's forays into genres other than the one whose section they are actually reviewed under. Stylistic inconstancy, generic treason, and dilettantism are, paradoxically, almost supreme values. And often the writer gestures at a vague enemy allegedly outraged by these border-crossing forays and illicit mixtures: the purists.

Why is "purist" such a potent insult? I think it relates to the word's etymological echoes (puritanism, and its related tropes of squeamishness, prudishness, and closemindedness) and its semantic traces from other, genuinely reprehensible bodies of thought: eugenics, racial purity, cultural hygiene. "Impurist" music, or what in an earlier age they called "fusion", allies itself with a more virtuous bunch of concepts: multiculturalism, miscegenation, cosmopolitanism. It's especially heartwarming to ally yourself with words like these right now, when European politics is muddied by upsurges of ethnic anxiety about pollution and mixture: Le Pen, Haider, and similar ultra-nationalist figures in Belgium, Rumania, and Norway; racial attacks on migrant workers, asylum seekers, immigrants. While British neo-fascist parties have declined in recent years, the UK's general population remains deeply divided over issues of multiculturalism and European unity; there was a storm of outrage when a Government-funded independent report on multiculturalism declared that the concept of "Britishness" was latently racist owing to its imperial echoes.

One of the figures involved in drafting that report was Stuart Hall, pioneer of the cultural studies movement at Birmingham University in the 1970s. Paul Gilroy, one of Hall's former associates and, like him, a Black-British theorist about postcolonialism and hybridity, made his own contribution this year to the multiculture debate with Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (also published, in the UK, as Between Camps). If the book has a crux, it's the fatal ambiguity of the word "culture" itself--which simultaneously has an organic, biological resonance (growing plants, germ cultures etc) yet also signifies the antithesis of earthy natural-ness (the civilized, the non-instinctual, the artificial, the sublimated). The first aspect of "culture" connects to notions of blood ties and its inevitable companion blood letting: tribal warfare, ethnic cleansing, Balkanisation or "Rwanda-isation", the rhetoric of roots and homelands, struggles over mother tongues and state control of language.

Aiming to de-biologize the concept of race, reveal it as a pseudo-scientific figment, Gilroy--just like a music journalist--has his set of bad terms and his set of good terms:

essentialism/primordialism/unanimism/fraternalism/ethnic absolutism



There are no pure races, cultures, or art forms, Gilroy contends; everything is always already hybrid, contaminated by the other.

Gilroy acknowledges dance music as one of the bastions of contemporary "transculture". And interestingly, club and rave culture are where the discourse of purism versus hybridity is most heated. This is partly because the culture's primary focus isn't individual artists, as it is with rock, but styles and scenes. Because this is the level on which it's most productive to talk about stuff, a huge amount of discursive energy goes into cultural taxonomy, into identifying genres and subgenres like species; into tracing the genealogy of genres, the family trees and evolutionary pathways of different sounds. Artists are typically praised for departing from their chosen genre and taking on ideas from other styles.

Genre has a phantom trace of the concept of the genetic, and almost all the language used to discuss music has connotations of miscegenation: mix-and-blend, mutation, mongrels, the imperative to avoid incestuousness (the downside of all closeknit scenes) and instead widen one's gene pool. Either that, or it's the language of horticulture: grafts, hybrids, cross-breeds, grass roots. Typically, a new genre is discovered and hailed for its distinctiveness. But if it's not careful, this scene will soon become castigated for being purist, for not embracing influences from other genres. Rare indeed is the scene that can maintain for any length of time an equilibrium between self-consistency and flux, absorbing outside influences without flaking off into subgenres or offshoot tribes (with the hype-hungry media eagerly hastening this process in order to have something to write about).

Perhaps the privileging of aesthetic mingling as supreme value echoes the broader "project" of club and rave culture, the premium it sets on social mixing. (Itself an echo of rock'n'roll's original subversiveness--cross-town traffic between different races, the phantom threat of miscegenation that aroused the white Southern establishment's fears of "negrification" and "jungle rhythms"). In dance discourse, a club that draws a mixed crowd is always good; all kinds of scenes echo the credo of pirate station Kool FM, "it doesn't matter what your class color or creed, you're welcome in the house of jungle". Scenes lose their vibe, it's generally believed, when the mix becomes unbalanced (drum'n'bass, it's said, lost it when there were too many boys on the floor, for instance, the girls driven away by techstep’s distorted noise and mechanistic stomp). The exhortation to mix up the styles, keep porous your genre boundaries, has an ethical charge to it: as if somehow an artist could singlehandedly resurrect the lost unity of rave, a unity shattered by, you guessed it, the purists, the schism-makers. Hence the unanimous praise for Basement Jaxx and Armand Van Helden, paradoxically taken as exemplars of their genre (house) yet praised for attempting to leave its borders at every opportunity.

There's a reversibility to dance culture's pro-hybridity rhetoric, for when the "purists" (who do exist, and are often reactionary) talk about protecting their genre from its debasers, their language takes on unfortunate eugenic associations. Detroit techno pioneer Derrick May described breakbeat hardcore (the music that evolved into jungle) as a "diabolical mutation" and declared "I don't even like to use the word 'techno' because it's been bastardised and prostituted in every form you can possibly imagine". His contemporary Eddie Fowlkes described European rave in terms of the "cultural rape" of Detroit, and later put together a compilation of "proper" Detroit-affiliated techno called True People. As Barbara Stafford argues in Body Criticism: Imagining the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine, "the hybrid posed a special problem for those who worried about purity of forms... and unnatural mixtures... The metaphysical and physical dangers thought to inhere in artificial grafts surfaced in threatening metaphors of infection, contamination, rape and bastardy."

Then again, the extent to which these aesthetic issues map onto real-world politics is confusing, to say the least. In the case of Detroit techno versus UK hardcore rave, the irony was that these British kids (white, black, mix-race) who were "corrupting" techno were doing so by mixing it with elements from other forms of black music that the Detroit pioneers (all African-American) disdained: hip hop's breakbeats, dub reggae's bass, dancehall's rowdy vocals. In the cultural politics of Detroit, class division transected racial allegiances: the arty middle class black kids who invented techno were Europhiles who despised hip hop as ghetto music, and feared its fans from the projects. Hardcore/jungle, as a hip hop/techno hybrid, represented the return of Detroit's repressed---which is why Detroit and Detroit-aligned artists resisted the breakbeat revolution for as long as possible.

Then again, is what I cherish about hardcore/jungle, and
find relatively lacking in most Detroit techno, really about the former's hybridity and the latter's purism? Mixing disparate elements together guarantees nothing. There's a whole realm of bland blending out there, which Gilroy acknowledges when he refers to the banal forms of rootless cosmopolitanism in which "everything becomes... blended into an impossibly even consistency." Why is this kind of hybridity so lacking in interest? Is it the scent of tourism--safe encounters with an Other that reassuringly turns out to be harmless, or even the Same? I'm thinking of the world music phenomenon, where white Westerners like Paul Simon discovered the primal innocence and raw spirit of Fifties rock'n'roll alive and kicking, clad in the exotic ethnic flesh of Soweto or Bahia. (But were strangely much less inclined to embrace the forbidding alien-ness of, say, Inuit Eskimo plainsong or Javanese gamelan). The edge-less aura of these hybrids has something to do with their top-down nature, as opposed to more lateral/reciprocal/rhizomatic interactions. The slumming, inspiration-starved, albeit often genuinely enthusiastic, respectful and well-informed rockstars (David Byrne, Peter Gabriel) who seek aesthetic rejuvenation from outside Western pop can be contrasted with the sort of hybrids that emerge spontaneously through long-term proximity of different populations. Think of London's dance culture, which goes back long before rave to when Jamaicans first imported their sound system culture of heavy bass pressure, "blues" (illegal all-night parties), and ganja. The result has been a continuum of creole music: lover's rock, Soul II Soul's "funki dread" sound (imported American soul meets reggae, but only in London), breakbeat hardcore and jungle, today's UK underground garage and 2-step. Or take Bristol, another UK city with a long established multiracial presence, but which produced its own quite differently inflected cross-breed: the Pop Group's dub-funk-jazz charged version of postpunk, trip hop. All of these hybrid sounds have an element of evolutionary random-ness about them, and reflect not just sonic recombination but social exchanges, reciprocal transfers of behavior and ideas. Compare these slowly spawned hybrids with the fusions hatched in laboratory-like conditions by the likes of Bill Laswell. The organic versus synthetic metaphor is perhaps too loaded, but there does seem to be a difference here between interbreeding/grafts and cut'n'paste/collage, a contrast possibly analogous to the difference between analog and digital. Where the first set of hybrids (jungle, 2step, etc) are productively contaminated with the mess of everyday life and street knowledge, the second set has an unmistakeable aura of sterility, the academic.

Ultimately, these are musical values, aesthetic failings, though: lack of "spark" or "vibe" or whatever other vital intangible it is that animates music. And perhaps the whole debate over purism versus impurism is based on the mistaken belief that you can map aesthetics onto politics, find a straightforward equivalence or correlation between worth in one realm and the other. Dick Hebdiges, the famed subcultural theorist (and contemporary of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy), once described the development of UK pop music as "a phantom history of British race relations". I've long concurred with this view, but now I'm not so sure. The racial narrative--above all, the white romance with black music--is just one of many threads in the tangled tapestry of pop culture, and the picture gets confused by a host of other factors and struggles: class, gender, technology. Furthermore, as pop/rock grew older, it started to develop its own internal politics, engage in purely aesthetic struggles, and go through shifts based on a self-reflexive relationship with its own accumulating history (the postmodern feedback loops crystallized in the famous phrase "pop will eat itself"). Working out what a given piece of music, or a particular trend, correlates with in terms of the outside world is hard enough, let alone a specific strand of political reality such as race relations.

Take, for example, the recent issue of Melody Maker that featured the a cover story headlined "UK Garage-- My Arse!" and the sub-headline "Alternative Rock Fights Back". Depicted on the cover is a black man with a striking resemblance to garage superstar Craig David, sitting on the toilet listening to a Walkman with his trousers around his ankles, a piece of toilet paper in his hand. The back story to this is the bursting of Britpop's bubble. The giddy mood of jingoistic triumphalism that consumed the entire UK indie-rock scene--bands, fans, journalists--for a good three year period 1995-97, had now curdled to bitter dismay, as the pop charts became dominated by American R&B and rap, plus the homegrown house/jungle/R&B hybrid known as UK garage aka 2step. Melody Maker’s cover could be seen as a petulant fit of impotent rage from a magazine whose sales had shriveled to a pathetic 30 thousand copies a week.

My initial response, as UK garage fan and a MM veteran of the days when the magazine put Public Enemy on the cover, was to squeal "racism!". The explicit equation of UK garage, a multiracial scene dominated by black musical values, with shit connects unhappily with a little-known dirty secret about the UK music press: market research by IPC, the conglomerate that owns both Melody Maker and its rival NME, discovered that the large market segment of casual readers who pick up one paper or the other depending on who's on the cover wouldn't buy issues that featured black faces on their covers. As reprehensible and sad as the "UK Garage--My Arse!" cover was (the first black man on MM's cover in living memory), though, I'm not utterly convinced that indie-rockers antipathy towards "that garage crap" is really racist. It's a mixture of discontents and repugnances: aesthetic disgust (the smooth, shiny UKG production transgresses indie rock's values of sonic shabbiness), gender bias (UKG connotes girly, pop values like singalong melodies, diva soulfulness, lyrics about sex and romance), class affiliation (garage's working class dress-to-impress fashion and fetish for expensive designer labels versus middle class students's dressed-down scruffiness), rock snobberies about the superiority of lyrics/persona over rhythm/production. Add to that the stinging feeling of being marginalised, a sense of being the underdog, and you have the ingredients for ressentiment. Racism--more on the level of ignorant, stereotyped ideas about black music cultures than hatred--acts as a glue that coheres all these different strands of antagonism together. In other words, it's exactly the same complicated tissue of reactionary and nostalgic impulses that lay behind Morrissey's attitudes to dance music.

Another way of looking at these relationships between aesthetics and politics is to find the least black-influenced music around and see if it correlates with racism, as it ought according to this logic. So take gabba, the hardcore techno subgenre---one of the most ferociously purist forms of music around, and "white"-sounding to most ears. Gabba has been persistently smeared with a Far Right association for years--because of the lack of "blackness" in its rhythmic feel, the aura it emits of a rampaging mob, and the fact that many of its fans have short cropped hair. As a fan of some of this stuff, I'll tell you straight up that there's definitely an aesthetic quality to it that verges on the fascistic, or at least the dark side of the Dionysian: an amphetamine-wired aura of blitzkrieg, sinister pageantry, sturm und drang. Does this cyber-Wagner bombast have any intrinsic politics, though? (Marcus Garvey was into regimentation, drill, uniforms, too).

Dig deeper, and you discover that while gabba has a skinhead following in some parts of Europe, it is also the soundtrack of choice for Far Left anger---for anarchists, squat-dwelling and free party organizing renegades. Even in Holland, where some of the big gabba labels felt the need to clarify things by putting "Gabbers Against Hate and Racism" slogans on their record sleeves, you discover that many of the leading DJs started out spinning hip hop. Some top gabber DJs--Holland's Darkraver, the UK's Loftgroover--are actually black.

But let's focus on one gabba god, German producer Marc Acardipane (a/k/a the Mover and about twenty other alter-egos). Probably the most accomplished producer in the genre, and perpetrator of some of the most Vikings-going-berserker sounding gabber so far, Acardipane is also a big hip hop fan. His formative techno influences are from black Detroit artists Suburban Knight and Underground Resistance, and he also made some early breakbeat-driven rave tunes and jungle tracks. So we're not dealing with a guy with a closed mind or ears. The Mover's decision to pursue such a purist, narrowly focused music path is entirely aesthetic, and entirely productive: he has created a vast, frequently astounding body of work. There are purisms in music that are reactive and reactionary. They couch themselves in terms of a return to something that's been lost---an original vibe, "funk", musicality, emotion--or as honorings/resurrections of some bygone golden age (acid jazz and Seventies fusion; deep house's yearning for the Paradise Garage and the lost eclecticism of Seventies underground disco culture). You could call this kind of purism "fundamentalist" perhaps, gesturing at its religiosity, its attitude of keeping the faith. But other purisms are forward-tilted, emergent, and in some senses self-generating. This kind of purism seems to coalesce in response to the centripetal? pull of a strange attractor, shedding off the residues of other styles and honing down to an aesthetic essence: think of how jungle emerged from the messy chaos of hardcore rave, and how jungle further refined itself into jump-up and techstep. Perhaps there is an optimal point in the arc of any purist music, after which the self-refining minimalism becomes anorexia--the style eating away at itself. (This is what happened to drum'n'bass after it perfected itself circa 1996; to gabba once it had gone beyond a certain extremity of beats-per-minute and distortion and exhausted all the possibilities within its very enclosed terrain).

The Mover's purism is the forward-leaning sort. Title-wise, his tracks often refer to a private mythology based around the apocalyptic future; an obsession with the year 2017 that maybe relates to this idea of exponential arc of intensification (sonic, techno-cultural) hurtling towards a singularity in the near future. If Acardipane were to dabble more in mixing styles or broaden his textural palette beyond the few colors of which he is master, his work would only lose its power, its fanatical focus. There is an undeniable aura of zeal in the music, which begs the question again of its real-life correlates, if any. The "fascism" in this music is the desire, enflamed by the music but also satisfied by the music, to merge with a collective vastness ("Into Sound", as one Acardipane track is titled; see also titles like “Hall” and the Cold Rush label slogan “music for huge space arenas”). This is also the desire to merge with the rave massive: mobilized but aimless, united but apolitical. In a sense, this music isn't about but simply is the desire for mission, insurgency, destination, destiny, singlemindedness, a mobilized and rampaging unanimity; rage without object, belief without creed. And it suggests that fantasies of purity relate to our ancient desires for the absolute. When you come to think about it, music is just about the healthiest, safest place to deal with such longings.

No comments: